Goals from Victor Moses and Daniel Sturridge—both assisted by Luis Suarez—took Liverpool into the FA Cup fifth round with a 2-0 win over a spirited Bournemouth side at the Goldsands Stadium on Saturday.
Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe will have been pleased with the manner his side went about the game, as they fearlessly went about attacking their esteemed visitors in impressive fashion, only for the final finish to let them down.
His opposite number, Brendan Rodgers, will be glad to have overcome a potential banana skin fixture with a performance that was more professional than it was impressive, but one that did the job nonetheless.
But it is exactly because of the nature of the Reds’ win that they must improve on Saturday’s performance when they host the visit of high-flying and fellow top-four challenger Everton on Tuesday, in the 222nd Merseyside derby.
Concerns at the back: A return to 3-5-2?
That Liverpool are now besieged with a host of injury problems is no longer news, but Rodgers and Liverpool fans alike could be forgiven for fearing the worst after Martin Skrtel received extended treatment off the pitch for a blow to the head.
His subsequent return to the field with a bandage around his head was comforting as it was important, but he will be paying further visits to club doctor Zaf Iqbal in the build-up to the Everton game.
With Glen Johnson out injured, Martin Kelly was granted an opportunity to stake a claim for a first-team place. But yet again he looked labored and still some way short of full match fitness as he faced a quick and dynamic Cherries left flank.
Not that fellow full-back, the perpetually out-of-position Aly Cissokho, fared any better. Not only was he lacking in defensive positioning, but he failed to provide any inspiration going forward.
This compounds the problem that Rodgers already has, with Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson—arguably the Reds’ first-choice back four—out on the sidelines.
In this context, the return of Jon Flanagan, and the man he replaced, was illuminating: Kelly could have been withdrawn to preserve his match fitness, but Rodgers showed Flanagan’s importance by giving him some minutes of his own to prepare for the derby.
With the current holes in the Liverpool squad, and the in-form partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, don’t be surprised if the 3-5-2 formation seen earlier this season returns on Tuesday.
For maximum work rate, positioning and defensive awareness, don’t be surprised if both starting full-backs on Saturday are replaced for Everton: It could yet be the in-form Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan who assume the wing-back roles in the derby.
Gaps in the middle: Fitness is the key
With his inconsistent performances in the Liverpool midfield this season, club captain Steven Gerrard has had both his importance to and role in the squad questioned this campaign.
With Brendan Rodgers’ decision to move him into a holding midfielder role, Gerrard’s time to adapt to his new position has attracted criticism, while Jordan Henderson, as the only other fit senior midfielder in the squad, has been nigh-on anonymous in recent games as Gerrard’s midfield partner.
Saturday, however, showed just how important Gerrard still is to the Reds cause. Some excellent tracking back and timing in the tackle allowed the skipper to avert danger on a few occasions, while his passing added some much-needed directness and variability to the Reds’ approach play.
And while Henderson once again had a quieter game, his work rate and presence in the midfield remains important, especially when the advanced midfielder in front of him is the physically slight Philippe Coutinho.
But as much as their presence in the middle of the park enabled Liverpool to come away with a win, it was very much a gamble to start both players amid the club’s injury troubles.
The competitiveness of the game, and the dogged spirit of the Bournemouth players, ensured that the visitors had to wait until the hour mark before Liverpool gave themselves more of a cushion in the game.
Running themselves into the not-so-well-groomed ground at Goldsands Stadium won’t have done Gerrard and Henderson any good ahead of Tuesday’s derby, where Everton’s powerful and dynamic midfield will pose far bigger problems than Bournemouth’s.
Whatever spirit and attitude they showed in the FA Cup on Saturday, they’ll have to replicate it and then some if they are to get an important result against Everton in just a few days.
Consistency in the attack: A second chance for Victor Moses?
Before we go into more detail on Liverpool’s first goal, let’s devote a few column inches to the Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge forward partnership.
The burgeoning strike duo, who were in such exciting form prior to Sturridge’s injury, have shown signs that they are back to their exhilarating best in Liverpool’s past few games. Saturday yet again saw “SAS” work in tandem for an impressive second goal, even though Suarez went a second consecutive game without scoring.
But enough about their collective excellence: More interesting was Victor Moses’ display against Bournemouth.
Critics will dismiss Moses’ performance as it came against a Championship side in the FA Cup, but what was evident for all to see were his much improved attitude and the attributes that have always threatened to show themselves on the pitch.
Time and again, Moses showed great acceleration to get past his man on the left wing, and good awareness in passing, positioning and attacking. His first goal, a combination of an excellent first touch and a clinical finish, was deserved reward for an encouraging first-half performance.
Simply put, this was more like it from Moses, after what has been a thoroughly disappointing six months in a Liverpool shirt.
And it comes at a good time for Brendan Rodgers, who could do with a selection headache and will have been pleased that Moses grasped a chance to impress with both hands.
If Sterling is indeed employed as a safe defensive option but an intriguing counterattacking weapon in the derby, then Moses could yet reprise his starting role against Everton.
Alongside an interchanging strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Victor Moses might just salvage his Reds career yet.
But just like the rest of his teammates, simply replicating their display against Bournemouth won’t be enough: They’ll have to improve on that to get a morale-boosting win over a tough rival on Tuesday.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.